Thornton to evaluate dual enrollment, iPads

Published 1:26 pm Wednesday, September 23, 2015

By Alyse Stanley

Staff writer

Isle of Wight County Superintendent Jim Thornton plans to hear opinions from parents and students before making changes with the existing dual enrollment (DE) and iPad initiative programs in county schools. In terms of instructional framework, he said his initiatives include making work more relevant and increasing student engagement.

“Let’s go back to the days where we were more creative, more innovative and did more rough drafts,” said Thornton, who recently replaced former Superintendent Katrise Perera. This will be Thornton’s first year in Isle of Wight after coming from Mecklenburg in July. Perera’s signature initiative three years ago was the iPad program for all high school students, which created controversy at the time.

The constant pressure of the Standards of Learning tests often make teachers “laser focused” on a set curriculum, Thornton said. That fault, in part, he believes falls on administration, which has not done enough in the past to build trust with teachers. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

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Though learning this curriculum is still important, he said, engaging students through relevant instruction would better prepare them for working in the 21st century.

One program he plans to implement is the Exposition of Learning, an open house where students showcase their work to parents. By explaining their work to attendees, Thornton believes students will become better communicators — a skill that can translate to any subject.

Tech Program

While Thorton intends to continue county school’s use of technology as a tool in the classroom, before continuing the iPad program he intends to examine the technology itself.

Students need a 1-to-1 tool, he said, but the school division should consider whether or not that tool is the iPad. Considering the constant changes in technology and the different needs for different age groups, he said parents, students and administrators should seriously consider what devices best fit students’ needs.

“There’s a lot of ways to educate children,” he said.

However, Thornton said he plans to speak with parents and students and conduct focus groups before making any decisions.

On his first day as superintendent, he spoke with several recent Smithfield High School graduates about their thoughts on the iPad program. They were the first generation to use the devices throughout most of high school, and their response was generally positive, said Thornton. Mainly they complained that a few of their teachers did not try to effectively integrate the iPad into their classrooms.

Thornton also spoke with principals from across the county, who shared the students’ sentiments.

Should the schools determine that high school students worked better with another device, existing iPads would be transferred to middle and elementary schools. If they so choose, the county schools can purchase each iPad for $1 at the end of its three-year lease agreement with Apple, which ends this year.

When the Isle of Wight County schools launched the iPad initiative in 2012, a common complaint from both faculty and students was the lack of proper training for teachers. Thornton said he realized this as a potential problem should new devices be integrated

However, he said the most effective training could not be conducted until after the initial year. Only then would specific weaknesses be pinpointed and addressed in masse.

Even if new devices were purchased, Thornton said the priority would first be “getting the devices into [student’s] hands, because kids will learn how to use them.”

Now that the initial year has passed with the iPad initiative, he believes the concentration should switch to training teachers.

According to Thornton, county teachers could be divided into three groups: those who are comfortable with the technology; those who are still learning how to use it; and those who have yet to implement it and require significant instruction.

When he became superintendent, Thornton said Lynn Briggs, director of educational technology, mapped out their strategy.

The school division plans to hire instructional technology resource teachers (ITRT) for those who have requested extra help. ITRT train teachers to integrate technology and use software successfully in their classroom according to the Virginia Department of Education. They will be present alongside teachers in class, identifying their problem areas.

Thornton also encouraged teachers to be more open to learning from their students.

“You’re providing them with content, so let them show you how to use the technology.”

The school division launched the $1.3 million iPad initiative in 2012, providing an iPad to every student in Isle of Wight high schools. Though the devices were originally intended to replace textbooks, the county schools later discovered most electronic books (ebooks) catered to the Common Core instead of the SOL. The Common Core test is an alternative to the SOL that many states use, and while the curriculums are similar, they are not exact enough to make textbook exchange feasible. Virginia uses the SOL tests instead of the Common Core tests. The initiative was controversial at the time, in part from lack of training for teachers, and also from parents concerns over improper usage of the devices.

Dual Enrollment

As superintendent of the Mecklenburg school division, Thornton helped initiate and oversee the use of an associate’s degree program in county high schools. This extension of the dual enrollment program allows high school students to graduate with enough credits to earn an associate’s degree.

However, Thornton does not want to incorporate such a program strictly because it worked when he oversaw a different school system. He plans to have information meetings with parents and students to gauge their opinion of what direction he should take.

Thornton said he has already met twice with faculty of the Paul D. Camp Community College at the Smithfield campus to discuss the future of Isle of Wight County schools DE program. Though the school division switched DE accreditation to Virginia State in 2013, it has since returned the program to PDCCC, a closer university.

The first step, he said, will be taking stock of where teachers stand in terms of DE credentials. Classes taught at Isle of Wight schools by county teachers are fully reimbursed by PDCCC, eliminating the cost for students.

However, teachers wishing to teach DE must possess the same minimum standards as an instructor at PDCCC. Some of their staff already meet these criteria, Thornton said, but others are still in the process. The availability of qualified staff will determine whether expanding the number of classes is feasible.

Currently, Isle of Wight schools offer advanced placement (AP) classes as well as dual enrollment. AP classes are nationally accredited; students take a yearlong class and gain credits based on a single test score. Alternatively, DE classes are accredited through local community college with classes a semester long and credits based on a standard grading system.

Its difficult for the county schools to focus staff and funds on both, Thornton said, and he wants to give the parents a choice in which direction they proceed.

“It’s our job to lay out the advantages and disadvantages,” he said.

However, Thornton said he wants to ensure parents and students understand that DE classes — and AP by extension — are college level with high school credits, not the other way around. Students are held to higher standards and expected to learn more independently than in a typical high school classes.

“We can’t hold your hand anymore,” he said, referring to those classes. {/mprestriction}